During Week 3, your focus was on learning about the theory behind distraction proofing and changing canine behavior. Now that you’ve studied the concepts, it’s time to put them to work in the week 4 Service Dog Challenge: “Focus, Fido!”

This week, we’ll work on creating strong handler focus in your Service Dog or SDiT as a foundation Service Dog Focus Buildingfor training new concepts and improving already-known behaviors. Focus is the most important foundational skill any working or Service Dog or SD candidate needs before beginning formal training of any kind. If your partner is unable to focus on you, you struggle to keep his attention or he refuses to look at you when asked, you cannot communicate with him effectively, let alone teach him anything.

You’re going to need whatever you use to reward your partner, a clicker if you use one, and your 2014 Service Dog Challenge binder. Plan to set aside 10-15 minutes a day for training sessions.

2014 Service Dog Challenge: Week Four

Week Four Goal: To create strong foundation for automatic handler focus in Service Dog or SDiT

Week Four Focus: Utilizing high rates of reinforcement to build and solidify eye contact behavior from dog and for handlers to learn about conditioned reinforcers and reward markers in dog training

WARNING! Do not mark and reward if your Service Dog or SDiT is also jumping, pawing, barking, whining or offering an unacceptable behavior. Only mark and reward if your partner is quiet and has four on the floor. Otherwise, you risk reinforcing demanding, pushy or rude behavior/manners in addition (or instead of) the handler focused behavior we’re striving to obtain.

Week Four Instructions and Checklist:

1. Review/learn about reward markers in dog training, why they’re so effective and why you should add them to your Service Dog training toolbox. Here’s a short explanation on marker training, and here’s a longer, more detailed overview of reward markers, no reward markers and marker training. Just focus on reward markers for now, though. Watch the video for a great explanation and tips on proper timing.

2. Condition a reward marker for your Service Dog. Whether you use a clicker, a word (“YES! or “OK!” or whatever quick, easy, single syllable word you want) or a snappy thumbs-up doesn’t matter. Simply give your marker (click, word, hand signal), instantly followed by a reward (treat, playtime, whatever you determined your dog’s reward was during week 1 and week 2). Do this 20 times in a row without a break then awhile later, repeat. Your reward marker (or secondary reinforcer) is now conditioned and your partner understands reward marker = reward, always, period, end of story.

From here on out, we’ll use “click” as the cue to give your reward marker. Whether your marker is verbal, visual or an actual click, “click” just means “give your reward marker.” Similarly, we’ll use “reward” to mean “treat, toy, or otherwise reward your dog.”

Building Service Dog Focus Hand Feeding3. Divide your Service Dog’s daily meals into 2-4 servings. If you feed raw, plan on feeding only high-value items this week like diced muscle and organ meat so it’s easy to feed by hand. (Read about benefits of hand feeding here.) Plan on logging each training session in your 2014 Service Dog Challenge binder. Include details on the types of reward utilizes and the results obtained with each.

4. Stand/sit with your partner on leash. Put your foot on the end of the leash without interacting with your Service Dog or SDiT at all. Do not use the leash to control your partner or to try to illicit behavior. It’s simply there to keep your Service Dog from wandering off. Wait silently and resolve to remain quiet and non-interactive for all of these training sessions.

5. Click and reward the instant your Service Dog or Service Dog in Training looks at you for any reason. Timing is paramount here – you don’t want to click as your partner looks away after glancing at you or you’re marking the wrong thing! Click the exact instant your SD/SDiT looks at you, preferably making eye contact or looking at your face. (Here’s a guide to troubleshooting a dog who Service Dog Handler Focus Buildingwon’t look at you.)

6. Continue clicking and rewarding for eye contact until this portion of the meal is gone. Allow your pooch to look away or move around without correction, saying or doing anything. Simply stay quiet and continue clicking and rewarding when he looks back at you or gives you sustained focus. Everytime he makes eye contact, click and reward. If he offers continual eye contact, which will start to happen relatively quickly for most dogs, click and reward every few seconds.

Your goal is to offer a high rate of reinforcement for the behavior of offering eye contact and focus. Remember, don’t cue, ask for, or otherwise interact with your Service Dog. Let him and his behavior run the show; you’re not there to do anything but silently deliver reward markers and rewards.

Service Dog Handler Focus Building7. Repeat the above 2-4 times a day with your partner’s divvied up meal until the next Challenge is published. Within a couple of days, your Service Dog or Service Dog in Training should offer sustained eye contact for several minutes at a time. Simply offer a click and reward every few seconds until the meal is gone.

Once your partner is able to offer 3 minutes of sustained eye contact and focus without interruption while at home, it’s time to move to this week’s final step.

8. Take the focus show on the road. For at least one session a day, but more if you’re able, sit down in public or in a distracting environment (like the park). Everything should be done exactly as it was while you were at home. Sit silently and wait for your partner to offer eye contact. Click and reward. Within a matter of minutes, your partner should be glued to you. Train in various locations as you’re able.

BONUS: Keep extremely high value rewards with you throughout the day outside of the planned, formal “sit down” training sessions. While playing or relaxing at home or while working normally with your Service Dog or SDiT, click and reward strongly offered eye contact randomly with the extremely high value rewards. Intermix lower value rewards but make a point of always rewarding Service Dog Handler Focus Buildingstrong eye contact this week.

Use this week to remind your dog that you are truly epic and looking at you, checking in with you and focusing on you even around distractions is the best decision he could ever make. Don’t worry about treats or your reward becoming a “crutch” – they’ll quickly be weaned out as your partner begins to make sustained focus a habit. With time and practice, when encountering a distraction, your partner will start to look at you. Always reward instances your dog CHOOSES to look at you instead of a distraction heavily with flurries of treats, high value play time or in another way that says, “THAT WAS THE BEST THING YOU COULD HAVE EVER DONE IN THIS SITUATION.”

Got questions, comments, concerns, thoughts or ideas about this week’s Service Dog Challenge or want to share a resource/article/video on reward markers and focus building you found helpful? Chime in with a comment and let us know!

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